Britain’s flagship fended off waves of air attacks as French fast jets honed their skills.
Eight French Rafale strike fighters pounced on Plymouth-based HMS Albion just a day after leaving home waters, as her task group passed the Brittany peninsula, allowing pilots to practise tactics – and the Brits to practise their response to being buzzed by fourth-generation combat aircraft.
Albion is leading the Littoral Response Group (Experimentation) deployment, comprising destroyer HMS Dragon, amphibious support ship RFA Lyme Bay and elements of 3 Commando Brigade.
The ships are on a three-month deployment to the Mediterranean to test the concepts, equipment and practicalities of the Future Commando Force, as well as conducting traditional exercises and operations with NATO and other allies and partners in the region.
Passing Brittany brought the group well within range of the Rafales, based at Landivisiau Naval Air Station near Brest when they’re not embarked as the striking power of France’s flagship, carrier FS Charles de Gaulle.
And lifting off from Lann-Bihoué air base on the outskirts of Lorient was an E-2 Hawkeye airborne early-warning and control aircraft, which spent a few hours looking for the naval group.
When the Hawkeye’s crew located the shipping, they directed the Rafales in to make their attack runs, coming in with the sun at their backs – a classic fighter tactic.
As the aircraft were detected, Albion’s Combined Operations Room burst into a flurry of controlled activity. Systems hummed and headsets buzzed as sailors responded to the growing threat.
In theory Dragon and her Sea Viper missiles should take out incoming jets – or any rockets they fire – at long range. Should that fail, the task group has numerous automated Phalanx Gatling guns which spew out a supposedly-impenetrable wall of lead up to around one kilometre from each ship, decoys and, as a last resort, hand-operated machine-guns and SA80 rifles.
Both sides were able to test their attacking and defensive tactics and manoeuvres during the successive waves of raids.
“The opportunity for joint training in an alliance as strong as that of the UK’s with France has been fantastic,” said pilot Lieutenant Tom Lennon who normally carries Royal Marines into battle in a Merlin helicopter but is assigned to the task group staff for this deployment.
“To have eight French fast jets attacking the UK’s Littoral Response Group has provided invaluable training for both parties. Watching Rafale jets close on the Royal Navy’s Fleet Flagship and seeing her dynamic response was extremely rewarding. Exercises like these improve our ability to defend at home and, if needs be, fight abroad.”
The combined training with the French Navy is the latest link-up between the two allies and neighbours who have drawn ever closer over the past decade following the agreement at Lancaster House, culminating in the creation of the Anglo-French Combined Joint Expedition Force which a ship like Albion might lead to respond to an international crisis.